Los Angeles Times
March 17, 2004

Salvadoran Clan to Help Homeland Find Freedom

A father and son from L.A. who fled the nation during the years of strife return with a third generation to monitor presidential elections.

By Teresa Watanabe
Times Staff Writer

The grandfather has known the terror of torture and near execution in his native El Salvador.

The father has felt the anguish of witnessing massacres by Salvadoran soldiers, then leaving behind loved ones for safe haven in the United States.

The sons have heard these terrible tales, but struggle to imagine a world so foreign to their comfortable life of school and sports in the San Fernando Valley.

Today, the three generations of the Rivas/Fuentes family plan to return to El Salvador to revisit their past and celebrate a democratic future as the nation prepares for presidential elections on Sunday.

The family is part of a 200-member regional delegation of scholars, activists, students and clergy who plan to travel to El Salvador this week to observe an election that many see as historic.

Since peace accords brought an end to El Salvador's brutal civil war in 1992, the country's authoritarian political culture has begun to loosen. The left-wing FMLN opposition party has won mayoral elections in key cities, including San Salvador, the capital, and has challenged the right-wing ruling Arena party in the current presidential race.

The developments have been closely followed in Southern California, where the Salvadoran population is the largest outside the home country and the region's second-largest Latino group. Organizers from both parties have visited Los Angeles to appeal for support.

Elias Antonio Saca of Arena has visited leading Salvadoran business executives in Los Angeles. FMLN representatives have appealed for support at Salvadoran American banks, restaurants and other gathering spots, community members say.

Arena and its supporters argue that the government's economic policies, which include support for a proposed free-trade agreement with the United States, will lead to more jobs. An FMLN victory, government supporters say, would harm relations with the United States that are crucial to the country's chances for prosperity.

But among the many FMLN supporters who fled here during the civil war, the election is seen as a chance for vindication. "If the FMLN has a chance to win and does win, people think it will be democratic proof that their hardships were not in vain," said Grace Dyrness, an associate director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

Mario Fuentes Rivas, 42, is among that group. "I am filled with hopes that the people's voices and votes will be respected and finally darkness will give way to the light of democracy in El Salvador," he said. "I want to show the future generations that if people can come together to fight together, we can overcome almost any obstacle."

His family's journey began in the small town of Ilopango on the outskirts of San Salvador. There, his father, Guillermo Rivas, worked as a textile factory supervisor while raising Mario and five other children. Although Rivas earned a decent living by Salvadoran standards, he said, he was frustrated by the government's inability to provide jobs, free education and healthcare.

He said his frustrations mounted over what he saw as massive electoral fraud denying opposition party victories in the presidential elections of 1967, 1972 and 1977. In February 1977, Rivas made a fateful decision: He took Mario to what he thought would be a peaceful rally in San Salvador's Freedom Plaza to call on the military government to step down and recognize the opposition victory.

But terror descended on the plaza. During an interview in his Los Angeles home, Rivas, 67, described the thunder of tanks rolling in and Salvadoran soldiers opening fire on unarmed civilians. He and Mario recalled people falling and fleeing with limbs blown off, screams and blood everywhere.

When the panicked crowd broke into a nearby church for sanctuary, Mario said, the soldiers broke the windows and started firing inside.

Eventually, father and son said, they were herded to a rock wall in the eastern part of the city with hundreds of others, facing a firing squad. But both were released, because neither had a history of political activity.

Rivas' travails would not end there. After another of his sons disappeared, sparking an investigation by international human-rights groups, Rivas said he was arrested by the military in 1989. He said he was accused of aiding anti-government guerrillas a charge he denies and was tortured with beatings, electric shocks and near-asphyxiation during a 15-day captivity.

A high-profile campaign initiated by family and friends in the United States led to his release and immigration to the U.S. in 1990.

"It was so barbaric, so horrendous," Rivas said, his eyes misty with memories. "It was a rude awakening of what we were up against in our country."

Rivas' son, Mario, lost faith in his country's electoral process after the 1977 massacre and began military training with anti-government guerrillas. Then his mother, who was in the United States, intervened, bringing him here. "I could have joined the guerrilla army and probably been killed, or leave and improve myself and try to help my country in a different way," Mario said. "I chose to leave to survive, because I don't think war and violence is the answer."

After arriving in Los Angeles, Mario was plagued with feelings of loneliness and loss, and guilt over having left loved ones behind. He said he would cry for days on end, even as he struggled to adapt to a new country and found a low-wage job as a parking attendant. Mario said his life found new meaning when he met and began assisting Father Michael Kennedy, a Jesuit priest then working with Salvadoran refugees.

"I made a commitment then that I would not rest until I see in my country a day when real democracy and respect for human rights are promoted," said Mario, who went on to help found the Salvadoran American National Assn. and currently works as a community organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation. Mario said he and his wife, Margarita, are equally concerned about passing on their homeland's history and heritage to their two sons, Miguel, 10, and Luis, 9.

The boys, students at Vena Elementary School in Arleta, have not known the hardships of their elders. They live in a $410,000, three-bedroom home with three computers and two TVs. They thrive on basketball, swimming and video games with the support of a loving and close-knit family.

But they appear no less committed to the future of their ancestral land. Miguel says the shocking stories of his father and grandfather have sparked a deep desire to help the people of El Salvador. If he becomes an NBA basketball star as he hopes, Miguel says, he will buy homes and toys for needy Salvadorans.

To Mario, such sentiments underscore the point of his journey home.

"This is a moment for us to teach that out of darkness and difficulty," he says, "our future generations can learn a new history of fairness and justice."